W O R L D Confessions of a Terrorist Author Gerald Posner claims an al-Qaeda leader made
explosive allegations while under interrogation By JOHANNA MCGEARY
Sunday, Aug. 31, 2003 By March 2002,
the terrorist called Abu Zubaydah was one of the most wanted men on
earth. A leading member of Osama bin Laden's brain trust, he is
thought to have been in operational control of al-Qaeda's millennium
bomb plots as well as the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000.
After the spectacular success of the airliner assaults on the U.S.
on Sept. 11, 2001, he continued to devise terrorist plans.
Seventeen months ago, the U.S. finally grabbed Zubaydah in
Pakistan and has kept him locked up in a secret location ever since.
His name has probably faded from most memories. It's about to get
back in the news. A new book by Gerald Posner says Zubaydah has made
startling revelations about secret connections linking Saudi Arabia,
Pakistan and bin Laden.
Details of that terrorism triangle form the explosive final
chapter in Posner's examination of who did what wrong before Sept.
11. Most of his new book, Why America Slept(Random House),
is a lean, lucid retelling of how the CIA, FBI and U.S. leaders
missed a decade's worth of clues and opportunities that if heeded,
Posner argues, might have forestalled the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Posner is an old hand at revisiting conspiracy theories. He wrote
controversial assessments dismissing those surrounding the J.F.K.
and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations. And the Berkeley-educated
lawyer is adept at marshaling an unwieldy mass of information—most
of his sources are other books and news stories—into a pattern made
tidy and linear by hindsight. His indictment of U.S. intelligence
and law-enforcement agencies covers well-trodden ground, though
sometimes the might-have-beens and could-have-seens are stretched
thin. The stuff that is going to spark hot debate is Chapter 19, an
account—based on Zubaydah's claims as told to Posner by "two
government sources" who are unnamed but "in a position to know"—of
what two countries allied to the U.S. did to build up al-Qaeda and
what they knew before that September day.
Zubaydah's capture and interrogation, told in a gripping
narrative that reads like a techno-thriller, did not just take down
one of al-Qaeda's most wanted operatives but also unexpectedly
provided what one U.S. investigator told Posner was "the Rosetta
stone of 9/11 ... the details of what (Zubaydah) claimed was his
'work' for senior Saudi and Pakistani officials." The tale begins at
2 a.m. on March 28, 2002, when U.S. surveillance pinpointed Zubaydah
in a two-story safe house in Pakistan. Commandos rousted out 62
suspects, one of whom was seriously wounded while trying to flee. A
Pakistani intelligence officer hastily made voiceprints and quickly
identified the injured man as Zubaydah.
Posner elaborates in startling detail how U.S. interrogators used
drugs—an unnamed "quick-on, quick-off" painkiller and Sodium
Pentothal, the old movie truth serum—in a chemical version of reward
and punishment to make Zubaydah talk. When questioning stalled,
according to Posner, cia men flew Zubaydah to an Afghan complex
fitted out as a fake Saudi jail chamber, where "two Arab-Americans,
now with Special Forces," pretending to be Saudi inquisitors, used
drugs and threats to scare him into more confessions.
Yet when Zubaydah was confronted by the false Saudis, writes
Posner, "his reaction was not fear, but utter relief." Happy to see
them, he reeled off telephone numbers for a senior member of the
royal family who would, said Zubaydah, "tell you what to do." The
man at the other end would be Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul
Aziz, a Westernized nephew of King Fahd's and a publisher better
known as a racehorse owner. His horse "War-Emblem" won the
Kentucky Derby in 2002. To the amazement of the U.S., the numbers
proved valid. When the fake inquisitors accused Zubaydah of lying,
he responded with a 10-minute monologue laying out the
Saudi-Pakistani-bin Laden triangle.
Zubaydah, writes Posner, said the Saudi connection ran through
Prince Turki al-Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, the kingdom's longtime
intelligence chief. Zubaydah said bin Laden "personally" told him of
a 1991 meeting at which Turki agreed to let bin Laden leave Saudi
Arabia and to provide him with secret funds as long as al-Qaeda
refrained from promoting jihad in the kingdom. The Pakistani
contact, high-ranking air force officer Mushaf Ali Mir, entered the
equation, Zubaydah said, at a 1996 meeting in Pakistan also attended
by Zubaydah. Bin Laden struck a deal with Mir, then in the military
but tied closely to Islamists in Pakistan's Inter-Services
Intelligence (isi), to get protection, arms and supplies for
al-Qaeda. Zubaydah told interrogators bin Laden said the arrangement
was "blessed by the Saudis."
Zubaydah said he attended a third meeting in Kandahar in 1998
with Turki, senior isi agents and Taliban officials. There Turki
promised, writes Posner, that "more Saudi aid would flow to the
Taliban, and the Saudis would never ask for bin Laden's extradition,
so long as al-Qaeda kept its long-standing promise to direct
fundamentalism away from the kingdom." In Posner's stark judgment,
the Saudis "effectively had (bin Laden) on their payroll since the
start of the decade." Zubaydah told the interrogators that the
Saudis regularly sent the funds through three royal-prince
intermediaries he named.
The last eight paragraphs of the book set up a final startling
development. Those three Saudi princes all perished within days of
one another. On July 22, 2002, Prince Ahmed was felled by a heart
attack at age 43. One day later Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki
al-Saud, 41, was killed in what was called a high-speed car
accident. The last member of the trio, Prince Fahd bin Turki bin
Saud al-Kabir, officially "died of thirst" while traveling east of
Riyadh one week later. And seven months after that, Mushaf Ali Mir,
by then Pakistan's Air Marshal, perished in a plane crash in clear
weather over the unruly North-West Frontier province, along with his
wife and closest confidants.
Without charging any skulduggery (Posner told TIME they "may in
fact be coincidences"), the author notes that these deaths occurred
after cia officials passed along Zubaydah's accusations to Riyadh
and Islamabad. Washington, reports Posner, was shocked when Zubaydah
claimed that "9/11 changed nothing" about the clandestine marriage
of terrorism and Saudi and Pakistani interests, "because both Prince
Ahmed and Mir knew that an attack was scheduled for American soil on
that day." They couldn't stop it or warn the U.S. in advance,
Zubaydah said, because they didn't know what or where the attack
would be. And they couldn't turn on bin Laden afterward because he
could expose their prior knowledge. Both capitals swiftly assured
Washington that "they had thoroughly investigated the claims and
they were false and malicious." The Bush Administration, writes
Posner, decided that "creating an international incident and
straining relations with those regional allies when they were
critical to the war in Afghanistan and the buildup for possible war
with Iraq, was out of the question."
The book seems certain to kick up a political and diplomatic
firestorm. The first question everyone will ask is, "Is it true?"
And many will wonder if these matters were addressed in the 28 pages
censored from Washington's official report on 9/11. It has long
been suggested that Saudi Arabia probably had some kind of secret
arrangement to stave off fundamentalists within the kingdom. But
this appears to be the first description of a repeated, explicit
quid pro quo between bin Laden and a Saudi official. Posner told
TIME he got the details of Zubaydah's interrogation and revelations
from a U.S. official outside the cia at a "very senior Executive
Branch level" whose name we would probably know if he told it to us.
He did not. The second source, Posner said, was from the cia, and he
gave what Posner viewed as general confirmation of the story but did
not repeat the details. There are top Bush Administration officials
who have long taken a hostile view of Saudi behavior regarding
terrorism and might want to leak Zubaydah's claims. Prince Turki,
now Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Britain, did not respond to
Posner's letters and faxes.
There's another unanswered question. If Turki and Mir were
cutting deals with bin Laden, were they acting at the behest of
their governments or on their own? Posner avoids any direct
statement, but the book implies that they were doing official, if
covert, business. In the past, Turki has admitted—to TIME in
November 2001, among others—attending meetings in '96 and '98 but
insisted they were efforts to persuade Sudan and Afghanistan to hand
over bin Laden. The case against Pakistan is cloudier. It is well
known that Islamist elements in the isi were assisting the Taliban
under the government of Nawaz Sharif. But even if Mir dealt with bin
Laden, he could have been operating outside official channels.
Finally, the details of Zubaydah's drug-induced confessions might
bring on charges that the U.S. is using torture on terrorism
suspects. According to Posner, the Administration decided shortly
after 9/11 to permit the use of Sodium Pentothal on prisoners. The
Administration, he writes, "privately believes that the Supreme
Court has implicitly approved using such drugs in matters where
public safety is at risk," citing a 1963 opinion.
For those who still wonder how the attacks two years ago could
have happened, Posner's book provides a tidy set of answers. But it
opens up more troubling questions about crucial U.S. allies that
someone will now have to address.
Other War: The Taliban are back—but then, they never really went
away. Protected in Pakistan, the fundamentalists have had a busy
summer and pose a real threat to the U.S.-backed Afghan government
of Hamid Karzai